Friday will mark the Dalai Lama’s fourth official visit to Hawaii.
The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet traveled to the Isles in 1980, 1994 and 2007. While the foundation of each trip remained constant — talks and stops at historic and cultural sites — the number of people who flocked to hear his teachings multiplied.
This trend is expected to continue when the Dalai Lama returns to Honolulu. Thousands are expected to attend the two public events Saturday and Sunday at the Stan Sheriff Center, with many more participating in various programs around the island over the weekend and Monday.
Despite his soaring fame and growing worldwide audience, the Dalai Lama’s message has remained on point and he still considers himself “a simple Buddhist monk.”
Marya Schwabe, administrative director at Nechung Dorje Drayang Ling on the Big Island, said the Dalai Lama helps people realize their similarities.
“We’re not that different. We all want happiness. We all want to be free of problems and misery,” she said. “And most of his message has remained the same. The message of altruism. The message of kindness. The message of treating others as if they’re as important or more important than yourself.”
Schwabe was instrumental in the Dalai Lama’s first visit to Hawaii almost 32 years ago. On Monday she fondly recalled the 1979 trip to see him speak in L.A. where a small group of Big Island Buddhists invited him to come to their humble temple in Pahala.
The Dalai Lama accepted the offer, performing the formal consecration and dedication of NDDL on Oct. 28, 1980. It was in the main hall of the Wood Valley Temple, which Schwabe said seated some 50 people, that he gave one of his first-ever teachings in English.
He opened with these words:
“Here are many people sitting together in one room here. Physically there are slight differences but basically, we are more or less the same,” according to a transcript of the speech on Nechung Temple’s website.
The Dalai Lama’s brother and a few others joined him on that visit, Schwabe said. Together they all toured the Big Island, visiting Volcanoes National Park, driving down Chain of Craters Road and stopping for a seaside picnic.
“It was amazing,” she said.
There was also a private lunch with other ministers, including Christians and members of the Hawaiian and Chinese communities.
“His message just really appeals to a lot of people,” said Schwabe, who has routinely traveled to India to take teachings from the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala where he and other exiled Tibetans have taken refuge.
“It’s wonderful that he reaches so many people on the subjects of peace, good will, tolerance and never giving up on your beliefs,” she said.
The Nechung Temple regularly invites the Dalai Lama to visit, she said. Thirteen years after his first trip to Hawaii, the phone rang again. One of his New York representatives was on the other line: The Dalai Lama will return in April 1994.
Another flurry of preparations ensued, including renovations and building a small room for him. Schwabe said she was in China en route to Tibet when she heard the news, so hurried home to help print tickets and set out chairs on the temple’s sprawling lawn.
“We thought we would only get a thousand or so people,” she said. “We way underestimated.”
More than 3,500 people arrived from all over the world to see the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Some had to park three miles away and walk to the temple, which sits on some 25 acres.
“That was really an event,” Schwabe said. “His Holiness spoke from the temple porch. It kind of rained a little bit but people came with umbrellas and some came with coolers.”
The Dalai Lama also visited Oahu that year, speaking at the Waikiki Shell. In Karma Lekshe Tsomo’s book “Into the Jaws of Yama, Lord of Death: Buddhism, Bioethics, and Death,” the author recounts his response when asked “What happens to us after we die?”
“Generally speaking, we are no more,” the Dalai Lama quipped.
He also reportedly made an unofficial stop on Kauai during the 1994 trip. Garden Isle author Agnes Marti-Kini mentions the Dalai Lama in her book, “Anahola: Kauai’s Mystic Hawaiian Village.”
The Dalai Lama wanted to visit Polihale because that is where “souls leave for the next world” and Anahola because that is where “souls enter the earth,” she said.
It would be another 13 years before he made his way back to Hawaii. In 2007, his latest visit to the islands, the Dalai Lama spoke at the invitation of the Maui Dharma Center.
Schwabe said there are a dozen or more Tibetans who live on Maui. She expects them, as well as a number of others from the Big Island, to attend the talks this weekend on Oahu.
“We’ll see him at the public events. Maybe we’ll catch a corner of his eye here or there,” she said, noting the Dalai Lama’s keen ability to remember individuals decades later.
His visit this weekend marks the launch of a new Hawaii Community Foundation initiative called “Pillars of Peace Hawaii: Building Peace on a Foundation of Aloha.” The program will be working to bring global peace leaders to Hawaii to trade ideas about the many forms of peace found worldwide.
Schwabe described the Dalai Lama, 76, as a “brilliant” man who “really practices what he preaches.”
“He’s so articulate and so thorough and so inspiring,” she said. “And he’s not any different even though he’s world-famous now. … He truly is a simple monk.”